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Memory Lane

Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: Tales from one-room school houses

From the Memory Lane: Local historian Rebecca Yerger uncovers Napa Valley's past series
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As the tree leaves begin to turn brilliant colors, local students have returned to school, a time-honored local tradition since 1849. While the educational principles and routine have remained much the same over the past 173 years, creative curriculum choices and life’s mishaps offered special learning opportunities and experiences for both teachers and their students. Many of these moments took place at Napa County’s once numerous rural schools.

At one time there were 56 one-room schools within Napa County’s jurisdiction, including eight Lake County schools. There were also a few joint county schools shared by Napa and a neighboring county.

All of these schools were built on land donated by one of the families within the proposed school’s district. If the school was eventually closed, a reverting clause within the deed allowed the benefactor to reclaim the property.

The school district families were also financially responsible for the construction and outfitting costs associated with the school. Most one-room school districts had three trustees, usually the men with the biggest families or wallets, plus a clerk or secretary. The school’s trustees and families also paid the teacher’s salary as well as provided her room and board.

Many of these teachers were very young, 18-19 or so years old. They typically went through a six-month teaching certificate program before starting a teaching job. Frequently these novice teachers were not much older than some of their students as California mandated every child between ages 6-18 years had to attend school.

It was also quite common the older male students were bigger and taller than the teacher, which could have potentially created discipline and leadership issues. To avert that problem some teachers found unique solutions.

The following local one-room school story highlights an example of one novice teacher’s unconventional solution to this issue. The setting was the Blue Mountain school, a joint Napa and Solano counties school, located in the hills straddling both counties.

In the 1920s the Blue Mountain school had a new, young and diminutive but determined teacher. Standing at 5-feet 2-inches tall, this 18-year-old teacher had two female and 12 male students. Many of the male students towered over her. She quickly realized the need to not only assert her authority, but she also had to gain the trust and cooperation of all the students. Her solution was to teach target practice. A century ago, this was an acceptable scholastic exercise especially in the rural and isolated regions of Napa County where firearms were a necessity of country living.

While she supplied the ammunition, the students brought their own firearms to school. Some of her students were good shots. And while they and the other students hit the target, the teacher struck the bulls-eye, literally and figuratively, impressing and winning over her students.

A second story from Blue Mountain school involves a different teacher, the outhouse and snow. Blue Mountain is at a high enough elevation to occasionally receive snow. On one of these occasions in the early 1900s, the school was in session and the teacher needed to use the outhouse.

Everything was fine until she tried to exit the outhouse. Apparently, the cold air had frozen the hinges or door latch shut. With little light available to work on the problem, the teacher ripped a page out of a catalog, the toilet paper, and lit it with a match which started a small fire.

Fortunately, some of the male students came out of the school to help. After a bit of effort and a lot of anxiety, the teacher escaped physically unharmed. However, her pride and ego took a beaten as people learned about her getting stuck in a burning outhouse during a snowstorm. 

While neither of these events would occur today, the contemporary academic experience can still offer unforgettable memories that last a lifetime.

Get a glimpse of Napa life in the 1950s using newly released census numbers.

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